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What does JJ have to teach us about obstacles in games.

Shefyg Gur-Ary, Blogger

September 29, 2011

12 Min Read


I knew it would happen sooner or later. I knew I was going to use Jetpack Joyride as an example on game designing. And it didn’t take long for it to happen.
Jetpack Joyride, or as I would call it from now on - JJ, is an Iphone game, created by the wonderful company that brought us... well just have a look on their games page.

If you already played JJ - great, if not, then you should. Anyway, have a look at these youtube movies, if you are not yet familiar with this game, so we will have some common ground to discuss this game:
 movie1, movie2
So what are we going to talk about on this post.
This game is one of the best I played on IPhone, and it has a lot of strengths, from game
designing point of view. We could talk about the brilliant way the graphics are used, about the whole character upgrade mechanism, or how genius it is to make it as a one touch game. But I decided to go with something else, the obstacles and the missions in this game.
So what is an obstacle in a game. Well it is something that stands in the way of the player to victory, a something that would make him fail his mission. An obstacle is those thing we need to overcome in order to achive success.
If JJ was a standard runner like “The impossible game”, “Ninja jump” of “Chop Chop runner” then we would have only 1 or 2 objective. Run as far as you can, and kill as many enemies as you can.
And you know what, even Monster Bluster, halfbrick own runner... OOPSssss - Sorry, I meant Monster Dash. Even Monster Dash had about the same objectives (BTW, I wrote Monster Bluster, because its a game created by my friends at Touch Apps, and when I was thinking “Monster” I just typed it. Took me few seconds to get that I wrote the wrong name.)

But JJ is not a standard runner. Sure - its leader board is showing your longest run, but if you played the game for some time on your device, and then you go and play it on someone elses device, someone who has just started the game, you will see you get much more distance, and much more easly. That’s because the real objective of this game is not running for the distance, but leveling up, and it seems that when you do level up, the game is getting a bit harder.
The change in the difficulty is so small and so subtle, that you wouldn’t even feel it. (Disclaimer: actually, I should be cautious here, this is my assumption, I don’t know if this is whats really happening, but it sure seems so).

So this game is more about leveling up, and not about running for the distance. Which makes it much more fun than any runner, because you can run 500m or 3000m in 1 game, and you will still make progress. Each game, you either accomplish new mission, that gives you stars that help you level up. Or you get closer to accomplishing a mission, or at least you get coins that would help you buy staff, that would either help you complete a missions - or even buy completion of mission, if you really stack.
A lot of the missions are accumulating missions. For example, break through the wall 10 times. You break through the wall each time you play the game, so this is pretty easy to achieve :) and this is not a mission you can achieve, in one run on the game.

So what does it say on the game if you have missions which are accumulation missions, and not one-run missions. Well, it is another way of saying this game is not about one run. It is an endless game. Now, it is not endless like any other runner game, that is endless because potentially you can keep on running forever and not finish the game. It is endless, because you can always make progress in the game, by just... well - playing it again!

Now, this is a very smart thing to do. It means you can't really fail in this game on one hand, but on the other hand you can always be successful. So this tells us a lot about why the missions make this game so great, but what about the obstacles.

Well obstacles in any game are not just what keeping the player from succeeding, it also what keeps developers and  games from succeeding.

Many time we want to make the game challenging. We don’t want it to be too easy, or boring, because if we don’t keep the game challenging, the users might lose their interests. But on the other hand, if a game is too challenging, the players/users will mightget frustrated and put  it a way so fast, that they won’t even get to experience all those great things you built for them.

So one of the basic rules in game designing, is not to make too much obstacles. The player should have more “winning” experiences than “losing” ones. We need to challenge him (or her), but just for the right amount.

And so, the big question is, how we do it. Does it mean that we need to make a game with almost no obstacles, where the player has just one or two types of obstacles, that are just repeating over and over? Well it might sound boring at first - but we have evidences it could work.

Doodle Jump,  basically two type of obstacles, enemies that kill you when you hit them (the different type of enemies, don’t really matter), and losing a step (whether its breaking one, crumbling one, or just no step). Very good game, sold very nice, great use of accelerometer, and just a few obstacles. You know - maybe not exactly 2 types of obstacles, but close enough. At least you won’t have more than 2 types on the screen at any given time.

Next example the Doodle jump copy cat - Mega Jump. Almost no obstacles at all, mostly just collect coins for the win.

Last example - Tiny wings  this game is using physics in a genius way, and you could say that it has no obstacles.  How can you call  if the ground obstacle if it is slowing you down sometimes and give you a boost in all the other times. It is not really an obstacle, it's something else... 

Now thats exactly my point. You can put as many of those so called "obstacles" in your game as you like, as long as they are not just something that makes the game harder for the player, but also something that helps the player in other times, and there for - not really obstacles.
Confused? Lets think of Angry birds,

You might think that obstacles are all around in this game. Walls of stone, wood, glass with different shapes and sizes, stand in your way of avenging those big headed pigs. But whats happens when you break those walls, you get points, and you know what you need those points for? to get 3 stars and nail those levels. To get new high scores and conquer the leader board.
You see, if it helps you in anyway on making progress, then it’s not really an obstacle.

So what about JJ, what are the obstacles at that game. Well you have the zappers, turning zappers, the missiles, those laser things. You can say, that obstacles are all around in this game, and lets not forget, that the longer your run is, the faster they are coming at you.
But having all those obstacles is not so bad, because you have all those bonuses. You have coins, you have tokens that give you chance to win bonuses, and lets not forget all those machines  that you can pick up, that besides giving you a new way of movment are also functioning as an extra life. So maybe this game does have a lot of obstacles, that have the potential of  frustrating the player, but it also has all these cool bonuses that still makes it fun at the same time.

But as logic as it may sound, that’s the wrong answer. This game actually has no obstacles, but at the same time, in a way, every thing in this game is an obstacle. It is mainly a question of what is the current mission you are trying to accomplish. That's why I said this post will be about obstacles and the missions on JJ, they both together make the reason why this game has so much charisma.

So lets have a closer look on those so called "obstacles". Lets think of the zappers, those big electric thing that most of the time gets you killed. I mean, when you think of it, they must be obstacles right? - wrong. You see, if you have missions of getting near miss with zappers,  that actually make you try and get very close to them, than the whole way that you, the player, seeing the zappers is changing. This happends because in order for you to accomplish the mission you need to “collect” zappers. Not only that, there are other missions, that make you want to hit the zappers directly. In some missions, the machines you get (the Lil Stomper, gravity suit, Crazy Teleporter, etc...) become a liability. If you need to run on foot a curtain distance, or avoid collecting coins, than these big machines are just standing in your way to success in accomplishing the mission. And you know what, zappers are the best and fastest way to get rid of them, if you accidentally picked one of those machines. And if accomplishing a mission requires you to die in curtain distance, you would probably have to crash into one off the zappers, in order to do that.

Now what about missiles. Well missiles are about the same thing, so we know why we can’t consider them as obstacles.
But those laser things, those are a bit different. It tricky, they are the closest thing to an obstacles, since they seems like they only kill you ,and give you nothing in return.They have no special missions attached to them, they don't come as often, so they wouldn't help you die in curtain distance for those type or missions. And they would probably won't come in the right time to get read of machine you picked by mistake. But the truth is, that you know that when you have lasers, you have nothing else to deal with. No missiles, no zappers - its very romantic, just you and those lasers in some alone time. And because they are quite easy to detect and avoid, since they are very predictable, you can think of them as a type of break in the game. Some down time from all that action (where you still accumulating you meters) before all hells break loss again. And there for, onse again - not really an obstacle.

So the "obstacles" can not really be considered as obstacles, and we have all those bonuses lying around... but wait - I did say that  “in a way, every thing in this game is an obstacle”.  I said that because all those bonuses can also make you fail. If you are trying to make a run without collecting coins, than coins and machines that makes them harder to avoid becomes obstacles. If chancing a token makes you collide with a zapper, then even a token, probably the most exiting things to collect in this game is a source of danger. And if your mission is to burst the wall at the beginning of the game 10 times, or die between 500-550m than even just surviving is a kind of obstacle in this game.
And you know that whats great.

This game is repetitive by nature, but it makes you change the way you think, the way you play and the way you relate to things all the time. And it’s interesting, and its fun, and it addictive. Does zappers are good or bad, does red lights lights or scientists are good or bad, what about coins... There is no straight answer. You can't really tell what the obstacles in this game, you can only tell what the missions are, and all the rest goes from there.

So what did we have here. We talk about an excellent game, and how it is built. We talked about how it was designed, so insted of being just repetitive, it actually changes all the time, while the gameplay is the same. We considered how the obsticalls in this game are so different than so many other games, because they can function differntly, depending on the mission the player is trying to accomplish. We also saw, that though we might think of it as a one run game, a game where you try to reach the longest distance, and maybe kill the most enemies, this game is acctually by making a progress, by replaying it, and progressing by ranking up.

So if you haven’t played this game yet, go and buy it. Its a lot of education and fun for 1 dollar.
I hope you enjoyed my insights on this game, and would love to hear yourr comments and/or questions. Be back soon with hopefully some more interesting insights on game designing

Regards, Shefyg


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